Simple drawing test could detect Parkinson’s early

Simple drawing test could detect Parkinson’s early

A simple test that has been developed by scientists in Australia could help to detect Parkinson’s disease before the condition has had a chance to cause brain damage. The new diagnostic method, which involves asking the patient to draw a spiral, could be a huge step forward in preventative treatment.

It comes in the form of a programme that analyses how the  spiral is drawn on a tablet. Key factors include the time it takes to complete the task, the amount of pressure exerted and certain characteristics of the resulting lines.

At present, diagnoses of Parkinson’s can only occur once symptoms, including tremors and rigidity, have started to develop. By this stage, many of the brain cells that are tasked with producing dopamine have already died and there is no way to reverse the damage.

If doctors can start to administer treatment earlier, there is  a greater chance of saving more neurons. This in turn slows the progress of Parkinson’s and allows the individual to enjoy a better quality of life and independence for longer.

Professor Dinesh Kuman, from RMIT University in Melbourne, who led the study, said: “Pushing back the point at which treatment can start is critical because we know that by the time someone starts to experience tremors or rigidity, it may be too late.”

It has been known for a long time that problems with writing and sketching are among the first symptoms of Parkinson’s to appear. Scientists just haven’t found a way to harness such issues and convert them into a quantifiable test until now.

The reason that a spiral is the perfect subject is that unlike words, the quality of its outline will not be affected by a person’s education. While highly trained experts have been used to interpret spirals in the past, the tablet programme can be administered by a family doctor.

Poonam Zham, another of the researchers, added: "Our aim was to develop an affordable and automated electronic system for early-stage diagnosis of Parkinson's disease, which could be used easily by a community doctor or nursing staff.

"The system can automatically provide accurate Parkinson's diagnosis and could also be used to monitor the effect of treatment on the disease."

During its development, the system was tested by 27 people in their 60s and 70s, each with varying degrees of Parkinson’s. In addition to this, 28 individuals of similar ages, but without the disease, also took part in measuring its performance. The test was found to have a 93 per cent accuracy rate.

The test could be implemented  as part of a routine screening processes that is carried out from middle age onwards. This would mean many people could feel its benefits, but first more research needs to be done to ensure it is effective.

It is predicted that by 2020, 160,000 people in the UK will be affected by Parkinson’s. This makes it all the more important for tests such as this spiral example to be developed and treatments sought, so that old age can be the most positive experience possible.